'Halt!' The command was quickly relayed down the column. 'Packs down!'
The legionaries of the Sixth century shuffled to the side of the road and slumped to the freshly churned grass along the verge, far enough from the road to allow quick access for any messengers passing along the column. With a loud sigh, Macro slumped down and rubbed his leg. He had been discharged, at his own request, after the first two days on the road. Hospital wagons were as comfortable as it was possible to make them but, even so, the regular bone-rattling movement punctuated by jarring crashes from potholes was more than he could bear. Enforced lack of exercise made the march difficult but the dogged determination that came with the post of centurion carried him along. And now, some ten days later, Macro was almost back to his previous good health. The scar was still a livid red welt straddling his thigh but it had healed well enough and, apart from an aching stiffness and itch, it troubled him no more than all the other scars he carried.
'Water-carriers coming up, sir.'
'Any stragglers, Cato?'
'Two, sir. Both been placed on a charge.'
'Good. All right, boy, take a break with the rest of us.' He patted the grass at his side. 'The legate's setting a killing pace. It's a wonder we haven't had any more drop out. That's only seven since we set off.'
Cato glanced down as Macro rubbed his thigh again. 'How's the leg today, sir?'
'Fine. Just takes a bit of getting used to.'
A pair of slaves came down the line, pouring watered wine from animal skins into the mess tins held out by eagerly waiting legionaries. The water-carriers were part of a contingent of slaves Vespasian had brought along to carry out menial duties that might slow the Legion down on its quick march to the sea. They moved swiftly from man to man, pausing just long enough to half fill each mess tin. Once they had passed, Cato gratefully sipped the sour-tasting mixture of water and cheap wine. His legs ached terribly and the yoke from which his kit and non-fighting equipment hung was intolerably heavy. He had only managed to keep his place in the line of march through the fear of being seen as weak and unable to keep up with the veterans – the men whom he outranked by virtue of patronage, not merit.
Macro regarded the young man for a moment as he sipped another mouthful from his mess tin and swilled it around his tongue to fully appreciate the refreshing flavour. Cato sat leaning forwards, forearms resting on his knees and hands hanging limply as he stared fixedly into the mid-distance with a strained expression. Macro smiled with almost paternal affection for the boy. Despite all his earlier fears, Cato had turned out well. There was no doubting his guts and his coolness of mind under pressure. And, at last, he was beginning to sound like an officer. Words of command were coming easily now, albeit stiffly and without humour. But that would come in time. He was proving to be an excellent subordinate; conscientiously carrying out every order Macro issued and able to use his initiative when faced with unanticipated situations.
Macro had more cause to be grateful. At the end of each day, Cato freely gave up time to continue the reading lessons, as discreetly as circumstances allowed. Macro was pleased to find there was less to this literacy lark than he had feared. Those dreadful, indecipherable marks were slowly yielding up their secrets and Macro was able to follow the more simple texts in a halting way, dragging his finger from word to word along the scrolls as his lips framed sounds, and gradually extended them into words.
'Packs on!' The cry repeated itself down the line to the Sixth century where Macro stood to repeat the order at parade-ground volume. The century wearily picked itself up from the roadside and shouldered their yokes while the few men with enough energy to indulge in some ad-hoc foraging ran back from the surrounding countryside with knapsacks crammed with fruit and any small livestock they had managed to buy, or steal, from the local farmers. The century stood in line, while up ahead the column rippled into motion as the lead elements moved forward. They were off again, trudging down the paved road that led from Divodurum to the west of Gaul.
Cato, unseasoned as he was, suffered terribly in comparison to the grim-faced veterans. The afternoon's march was agony, particularly since the blisters he had acquired early on the road had burst and he was only just getting over the agonising rawness of the last few days. He had found that the best way of coping was to try and think of other things, examining the gently rolling landscape they were marching through, or turning his gaze inwards to try and occupy his mind. And there lay the problem. As much as he tried to concentrate on matters military there was always Lavinia lurking on the periphery of his consciousness.
That evening, after the century had been fed and the miscreants assigned their extra duties, just as Cato was yawning with arms at full stretch, a slave entered the flickering gloom of the oil lamps lighting the centurion's tent. He glanced about him, message tightly grasped to his chest.
Macro looked up from his desk, where the benefits of acquiring rudimentary writing skills were counterbalanced by the tedious paperwork he could now cope with. He held out a hand. 'Here!'
'I'm sorry, sir,' replied the slave withholding the scroll protectively. 'This is for the optio.'
'Fair enough,' Macro said. He watched curiously as Cato tore off the seal and unrolled the message. The contents were brief and Cato dipped his pen and quickly scribbled a reply, thrusting it back into the hands of the slave before ushering him out of the tent.
'That looked rather dodgy,' said Macro.
'It was nothing, sir.'
Nothing to do with you, thought Cato, but he managed to smile before replying, 'Just a personal matter, sir. That's all.'
'A personal matter? I see.' Macro nodded with a maddeningly amused expression on his face. 'Nothing to do with that slave girl, then?'
Cato blushed, grateful for the orange hue cast by the oil lamps, but kept his tongue still.
'Have you finished your work for the night?' Macro asked pointedly.
'No, sir. There are still some ration requisitions to complete.'
'Piso can finish them.'
Piso abruptly looked up from his desk in annoyance.
'Off you go, young Cato. Right now. But don't overexert yourself.' He winked. 'Remember there's another long day ahead.'
'Yes, sir.' Cato forced a smile and then dashed out of the tent, burning with embarrassment.
'Boys, eh?' Macro laughed. 'Same the world over, since the dawn of time. Takes you back a bit, doesn't it, Piso?'
'If you say so, sir,' grumbled Piso, and then he sighed at the heap of scrolls spread out in front of him and looked at his centurion reproachfully.